Arvid Reuterdahl arrived at the College of St. Thomas in summer 1918 to build the engineering program of his dreams. The 42-year- old had received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brown University, and was a seasoned practicing engineer with a passion for teaching. Reuterdahl envisioned a program different from many across the country at the time.
He was inspired by a recent publication from the Carnegie Foundation, written by University of Chicago professor C.R. Mann on the state of engineering education across the nation. The report derided how the fundamental sciences, such as mathematics, were being taught with little insight on how they were applied in the solution of actual design problems.Mann argued for more case study-type learning in the early years of college and raised concerns about the growing number of faculty who had no work experience as a practicing engineer. The Mann report fed directly into Reuterdahl’s idea of a great engineering school as Reuterdahl, too, believed engineering education had grown too abstract and theoretical.
With the Mann report of innovative programming as a model, Reuterdahl began building his program, and engaging his “boys,” as they referred to themselves, with how to do things. In short, Reuterdahl believed the school should focus on engineering practice.
The popularity of the program was immediate. The engineering program at St. Thomas quickly overflowed the facilities of the ill-prepared campus.
Around Reuterdahl, a new engineering fraternity emerged centered on the life and work of the great mechanician and mathematician Archimedes. From their den in the Class Building basement, the Gamma Theta Pi engineering fraternity organized dances and social activities for the college, and even printed an alternative newspaper – the source of which was unknown to the administration at the time – the Afoofa (All for one, one for all).
Some engineering students built a wireless radio with a 550-foot antenna to bring in the sounds of emergent radio stations, such as KDKA out of Pittsburgh, playing the first jazz music of the era. At one point during this period, Reuterdahl’s students even were commissioned by Father John Dunphy, the football coach, to take over the organization of the annual football dance to raise money for the team’s new jerseys. As reported in the 1920 yearbook, Dunphy charged them by saying:
“Go forth, ye followers of Archimedes, and thru your diligence make many simoleons so that our chasers of the pigskin may wear the woven wool of the sheep.”
The engineering students also took on projects to design the new power plant for the campus and, of course, sketched plans for a new engineering building.
It was clear that the boys greatly admired Reuterdahl. A student wrote that Reuterdahl “is the greatest and best man we will ever know.” This remarkable loyalty kept the program glued together; by 1921,the Gamma Theta Pi engineering fraternity had nearly 80 members on a campus of fewer than 300 students.
But Reuterdahl, his students and the makeshift engineering labs were running on vapor. The financial promises to support the program were not materializing, and the engineering program and its practical curriculum were divergent from the more theoretical curricula promoted at other colleges. And the horizon also was clouded by the brilliance of a man named Albert Einstein.
On Nov. 7, 1919, readers of The Times of London were greeted with the headline “Revolution in Science – New Theory of the Universe – Newtonian Ideas Overthrown!”
The Times covered a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London where three English astronomers had reported results on the deflection of starlight by the sun’s gravitational field during a solar eclipse. The report was trumpeted as the first experimental validation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
The theory of relativity – published by Einstein in 1916 during World War I – was not kind to even the most gifted minds. Few could grasp its development. With its highly complex mathematical analysis, Einstein warned the publishers “there were not more than 12 persons in the whole world who would understand it.”
The announcement by the Royal Astronomical Society catapulted Einstein into the limelight of popular culture. But not everyone was convinced Einstein was correct. Fed either by the residual doubts of the war, a limited understanding of the mathematical principles employed to develop the theory or a rising spike of anti- Semitism, skepticism lingered.
To read headlines boasting that Newtonian mechanics were being “overthrown” may have raised the hairs of any engineer practicing in the day. Reuterdahl himself had laid out a detailed analysis of how Newtonian mechanics could indeed explain the starlight-deflection results. He rebuked the results in the press as “balderdash.” Later, he even referred to Einstein as the “P. T. Barnum of physics.”
The public’s jubilation of a highly complex and abstract version of the mechanics governing the world also put extra pressure on Reuterdahl’s already strained engineering program dedicated to the practical.
To add to his battle fronts, with his engineering program bursting at the seams and in desperate need of support, another setback was soon to be delivered by the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.
Following the death of Archbishop John Ireland in 1918, the archdiocese engaged in an aggressive fundraising campaign to support the many needs of the college and other educational programs throughout the diocese. But in 1921, the diocese announced that the majority of the capital campaign funds would be used to build a new seminary (Nazareth Hall) on the southern shore of Lake Johanna.
Reuterdahl saw the writing on the wall. Any hope for support of his experiment with
a novel engineering educational experience was gone. And in spring 1922, Reuterdahl resigned from the College of St. Thomas.
Reuterdahl’s boys were stunned. The underground newspaper, the Afoofa, published a scathing editorial regarding the diversion of funds and the loss of a great professor:
“The department is passing into oblivion. ... The Archdiocese finds plenty of ready money in the Ireland Educational Fund to spend two millions of dollars (sic) in wrecking the scenery at Lake Johanna. ... How about a couple hundred thousand to build up a professional college? One that would be a tribute to the name of St. Thomas the world over. ... We are very much grieved to lose the services of a great man like Dr. Reuterdahl, but one can scarce blame him for leaving. ... We feel as though there is much of this due to misunderstanding and a lack of cooperation, along with a certain amount of petty jealousy. It certainly is a shame to allow personal prejudices to destroy such a flourishing department.”
The editorial was long and ended by imploring the administration to retain Reuterdahl; however, the column also hinted at other political factors that likely were present on campus. And for the first time, the editorial clearly revealed to the administration the source of the Afoofa as belonging to Gamma Theta Pi engineers.
It would be unfair for history to suggest that the construction of Nazareth Hall alone would have doomed the engineering program at St. Thomas. Following the 1919 report validating the theory of relativity, Reuterdahl became increasingly fanatical and involved with the global anti-relativist movement, which has a well-documented history. Reuterdahl began a zealous campaign to organize a community of scientists and engineers with the explicit goals of discrediting the theory of relativity. At the time, anti-relativists – including a Nobel laureate – were being marginalized by the scientific community, and respected scientific journals refused to publish their work.
Reuterdahl began writing a technology column in the overtly anti-Semitic Dearborn Independent newspaper. The theme of his column was largely about understanding technology, such as how things are manufactured, how biological cells function and how radios work. But Reuterdahl also used the platform to write several anti-relativism articles to the national audience. The articles formed a personal attack on Einstein.
Reuterdahl’s relationship with the paper and the tone of his claims indelibly have assigned his motivations as anti-Semitic. But from a comprehensive view of his life’s work (provided by his letters preserved in the Special Collections and Archives at St. Thomas) and his uncompromised commitment to practical engineering education, history owes Reuterdahl a second look.
Following Reuterdahl’s resignation, St. Thomas engineering students defiantly announced bold plans for the coming year. In the October 1922 issue of the Purple and Gray student newspaper, the Gamma Theta Pi fraternity laid out its agenda, including the “construction of a fraternity house” and a grand social calendar “to surpass all past year successes.”
In strident reverence to their former professor, the fraternity news announced that it would re-establish itself in “Reuterdahl’s Engineering School.” But one month later, the November 1922 Purple and Gray fraternity announcements make no mention of the once strong engineering fraternity. The college newspaper provided only a lifeless statement on the organization of a new group on campus called “The Engineering Society” led by the newly installed engineering dean, O.S. Overholt.
From that simple entry, the Gamma Theta Pi fraternity never was mentioned again in the annals of daily life at St. Thomas. Someone had stepped in.
The new academic year also accompanied the deliberate dismantling of Reuterdahl’s novel engineering curriculum and pedagogical philosophy. The yearbook documented the change by conveying in a sterile tone that the engineering program “has undergone a revision in regard to teaching methods since last year. Its curriculum now corresponds with those in effect at other engineering colleges.”
And with that declaration to teach engineering like everybody else, engineering at St. Thomas disappeared within the year.
Undergraduate engineering at St. Thomas was revived in the 1990s with its own brand of real world, applied engineering education. The School of Engineering now encompasses nearly 15 percent of the 10,000-plus student body at the university. And after nearly 100 years, the Mann report and Reuterdahl’s vision for engineering education still resonate at St. Thomas.
About the Author: Don Weinkauf has been the dean of the School of Engineering since 2008. Prior to St. Thomas, he worked for Shell Oil Company and was a professor at New Mexico Tech. He holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.
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